CAIRO — Fair and transparent elections were a core demand of the thousands of protesters who toppled President Hosni Mubarak last winter, but now that the moment has arrived, many Egyptians are more anxious than eager.
Once in pole position to lead the Arab world's fitful transition from authoritarian rule, Egypt instead is becoming a study in the pitfalls of an unfinished revolution, political analysts say.
Ordinary Egyptians are confused by the complex electoral system and fearful that bloodshed will mar the historic vote, which begins Nov. 28 and continues in stages until March. The police haven't returned en masse since the uprising, and the overstretched military can't secure the polls alone.
Political analysts and liberal revolutionaries have longer-term concerns over the ambitions of the ruling military council, along with the prospects for democracy when the best-organized blocs are Islamists and members of the former regime.
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About 15,000 candidates and 50 political parties are vying for seats in a parliament that, for now, has a narrow, ill-defined mandate to select drafters of a new constitution. All real power — to select a prime minister, name a Cabinet and control the budget — will remain with the ruling military council, which isn't scheduled to step aside until after presidential elections in 2013.
By contrast, Tunisia, Egypt's much smaller neighbor, worked closely with the United Nations last month for its first elections since the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Few violations were reported, the results were accepted and a jubilant air prevailed in the country whose uprising sparked the Arab Spring movements.
Nobody expects such a smooth path for Egypt.
"We made a mistake. We built this revolution and we broke it with a slogan: 'The people and the army are one hand.' The people and the army were never one hand," said Mohamed Aref, 32, a third-generation leather purveyor in downtown Cairo. "And what comes next is like a movie with a bad sequel: Mubarak's National Democratic Party and now the Brotherhood," a reference to the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood.
Few Egyptian voters — or, indeed, candidates — appear to fully understand how powerful the military council will remain after the election, thanks to hastily drawn-up, intricately worded election guidelines that have baffled even veteran political analysts.
"We don't understand it, either," confessed Mohamed Fayez Farahat, who studies Islamist movements for the Ahram Center research center in Cairo. He threw up his arms in mock helplessness. "We still don't even know how to calculate the winning percentage."
The military council's election system calls for voters to cast ballots for both individuals and electoral slates, a mishmash that's difficult to grasp.
Voting for 498 seats in the People's Assembly, the parliament's lower house, begins Nov. 28 and continues in two more stages, ending Jan. 10. Another 10 seats will be appointed, as was the practice in Mubarak's time.
Next come elections for the Shura Council, the upper house, with the first round Jan. 29 and the last March 11. Candidates are contesting 180 seats, and another 90 will be appointed.
The incoming legislature's main charge will be to select a panel to draft a new constitution, but the selection mechanism is still unclear and the generals are trying to wield enormous influence over the drafting body, including the right to disband it and start fresh if members don't meet their deadline, according to a set of controversial guidelines published widely last week.
With polls staggered throughout the next three months and then a presidential race to oversee, critics of the army leadership say, the process is designed to keep the generals in power long enough for them to safeguard military interests before eventually — and, it now appears, grudgingly — handing over Egypt to a civilian authority.
"It is becoming evident that the military is no longer in a hurry to relinquish power and that it is interested in influencing the outcome of elections before it does so," Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program, wrote in an essay published last week on the group's website.
In the meantime, the reclusive council has rejected nearly all foreign monitors or other outside help for the elections, leaving doubts as to how transparent the polls will be and how seriously the interim government will respond to alleged violations. Already, the Muslim Brotherhood's politicians are openly flouting a ban on religious campaigning with their election slogan: "Islam is the solution."
"We still tend to look at foreign monitoring as intervention in our own affairs, but how can foreign observers be banned when all of our armor is a gift from the United States?" said Ziad Akl, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, referring to the U.S. government's millions of dollars in military aid.
The regrouping and re-branding of formerly Mubarak-allied politicians is a main concern for the other candidates. Local newspapers report the emergence of at least five parties made up of holdovers from Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party. Their message is stability, an alluring promise for Egyptians who are fed up with the dismal economy and rising crime rate since the uprising.
"They're reaching for the un-politicized masses, and that's very dangerous," Akl said. "It's all about the state. Egyptians need the role of the state now."
On a recent evening, a few dozen supporters rallied outside the downtown Cairo offices of the Ghad Party, which is famous in Egypt because the old regime persecuted its reform-minded founder, Ayman Nour, for daring to run against Mubarak in a presidential race.
Nour isn't allowed to run this year because of a Mubarak-era conviction, but Ghad is fielding 25 candidates, including Shadi Taha, a liberal who's also deputy chairman of the party. Taha said the party was strict about not fielding or allying with any candidate who was suspected of ties to the old regime, even though that decision was sure to cost votes.
Other parties, Taha scoffed, have quietly embraced members of the old order and are refashioning them as supporters of the revolution, a revisionism that he finds despicable.
"It's easy seats, people with big money, big families," he said.
"I don't want to name names: Wafd. I don't want to name names: Tagammu," Taha added sarcastically, singling out two former opposition parties that generally are regarded now as part of the old regime establishment.
One group, the April 6 Youth Movement, a secular, pro-democracy collective that was at the forefront of the uprising, has launched a graffiti campaign to alert voters to questionable candidates. The artists target campaign posters: A white circle signifies candidates whose platforms meet revolutionary standards, while those marked with black are accused of having ties to the former regime.
"We want people to understand these are bad people and they shouldn't vote for them," said Rammy el Swissy, 22, a co-founder of April 6. "I'm not looking for a battle; I'm looking for people's rights."
The group also is preparing for the debut of an election-monitoring website whose name in Arabic means "Eyes." The site will allow Egyptian voters to upload video or share reports that show election violations.
Swissy said that several other projects in April 6's election awareness campaign were scrapped because of a lack of time and money. Its shoestring operation is no match for the deep pockets of the Muslim Brotherhood or the old money of Mubarak cronies, he conceded, but April 6 is determined to serve as "a watchdog" of Egypt's political evolution.
"As you can see, we've just spent all we've got," Swissy said, gesturing to stacked boxes of printer paper that the group plans to turn into 1 million pamphlets before the elections begin. "But we're doing whatever it takes to lead this country to democracy, whether it takes a day or a week or a year."
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